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Loneliness: Why It Happens & What You Can Do About It

Mental Health
Author name: Paul G. Simeone, Ph.D. VP. Medical Director of Behavioral Health

Remember: There Are Ways To Cope 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about loneliness, mostly because like other “diseases of despair” (suicide, opiate overdoses, and alcohol-related deaths), it has become epidemic.

As a baby boomer who didn’t dwell much on this issue until recently, I find myself thinking about my childhood and adolescence.

I was raised in a small town in central Massachusetts, population about 3,000, where if you weren’t related to your neighbors, you likely knew them. You often ran into these familiar faces at the grocery store, post office, or church.

This was mostly a good thing, a kindred sharing of life’s journey together. Yet, sometimes the lack of privacy (loosely defined as freedom from being observed) was less than ideal.

Privacy was always in constant tension with connection. Interestingly, we didn’t think much about it, nor the occasional loneliness that now grips our society.

Lonelier Than Ever Before

So, what happened? Despite all the ways we can connect – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat, You Tube, Pinterest, and Google Plus – we’re lonelier than ever before.

In metaphorical terms, we’re “bowling alone” as Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam observed.

Whether we live in the sprawling countryside or the brawling city, loneliness plagues us.

First, the industrial revolution led to urbanization of cities, where our lives were made easier by plentiful jobs and centralized services.

Now, the rise of technology (which is always getting “smarter” – think cloud computing, webinars, and online workspaces) has contributed to the phenomenon of de-urbanization in America. More of us are leaving the city to live in rural areas again.

Yet, the epidemic of loneliness knows no geographical boundary. The statistics behind this enormous socio-cultural occurrence are staggering.

The 2018 landmark study of global health service company CIGNA tells the sad and alarming story. Among its findings:

  • Nearly half of Americans report feeling alone sometimes or always, with an equal number feeling left out.
  • Two in five Americans feel their relationships are not meaningful and that they feel isolated from others a good deal of the time.
  • Only half of Americans have meaningful in-person social interactions, like having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with a family member.
  • Adults ages 18-22, “Generation Z,” is the loneliest generation and reports itself to be the least healthy as well.
  • Use of social media does not predict degree of loneliness: those who use it are not significantly lonelier than those who do not.

15 Cigarettes Per Day

Aside from its emotional effects, loneliness produces serious physical consequences, too.

Many studies link loneliness to a higher risk of coronary heart disease and stroke, diminished immune response, and premature mortality.

In other words, impaired social connections can be compared to other well-known lifestyle risk factors.

For example, research shows that loneliness and isolation is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes per day, and can mimic the adverse effects of obesity, physical inactivity, and poor air quality.

Clearly, the connection between a person’s physical, social and mental health is indisputable. Lest one be left feeling discouraged by these findings, fear not! There’s also good news.

How to Cope

First, let’s renew our appreciation that social connections are not only healthy, they’re critical to living purposeful lives. Technology may have us spinning like a top, but it’s heartening to remember that conversation, company, and connection matter.

Moreover, rest reassured that the same common-sense attitudes and behaviors I learned from my small-town experience can help lessen our burden:

  • First — this is most important, I believe — is not to blame ourselves for our loneliness and isolation. As a psychologist who has talked with people about this issue for almost 40 years, I can tell you self-blame hinders healing like virtually nothing else I know. For many of us, loneliness is a cultural problem that too often feels like a personal failing. Nothing is further from the truth; if you’re feeling disconnected and isolated, don’t beat yourself up. Please.
  • Avoid pointing the finger at yourself and reach a hand out instead. Maybe volunteer at something you’re passionate about, whether a meaningful cause or an enjoyable activity. For example, if you like working with carpenter tools, assist an organization that improves or builds affordable housing.
  • Work on improving the quality of your sleep. Studies have linked poor sleep habits with feelings of loneliness. Regular exercise, preferably with a friend, family member, or even a pet, can help, too.
  • Aim for a work-life balance that leaves you with enough energy, vitality, and interest to create and sustain a robust social life. That includes honoring your role in your work family, which includes the acts of giving and receiving with humility. This is important because we spend the best part of our days with our colleagues at the office, shop, or construction site. 
  • Finally, social media is here to stay in our culture, and despite its cautionary reputation, it can be a part of all of this. But, in the end, face-to-face interactions and our physical presence with each other can say “you are not alone” in more ways than all the combined languages in the world. Indeed, it is the wellspring of meaningful, loving, and connected lives.

Paul Simeone, Ph.D., is vice president of Mental and Behavioral Health at Lee Health. Simeone has more than 30 years of experience in mental and behavioral health as an educator, administrator, and practicing clinical psychologist. Simeone has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and master’s degree in school psychology from Adelphi University in Garden City, New York, and a master’s degree in psychology from Mount Holyoke College near Springfield, Mass.